Monday, December 28, 2009

Guest Post By Jeanne Althouse: Writing Jasmine Man--One Writer’s Process

I know from my writer friends that the process of writing fiction is very individual. Some writers get ideas from the news, others from family stories, but I am often inspired by my dreams and use them to write short-short stories. Here is what happened one morning early:

That night I dream about an old man. His face is marked with liver spots and folds of wrinkled skin. His neck has disappeared into rolls of fat. Suddenly he grows backwards, to a time when he is young and fresh, with slender hips and smooth skin. I feel the excitement of spring, of romance. I want to touch him. When I reach down between his legs, I grasp a package of flowers. My hand folds around the petals; the perfume is released.

When I wake up, I smell jasmine. It is the vine on my deck, its fragrance coming through the open window. Or is it? The window is closed. I roll out of bed, reach for my robe, walk downstairs, make a cup of Earl Gray, and sit with my writing journal. Bits of the night dream are still clearing out of my mind, like wisps of clouds passing. I start:

6:35 a.m. 3-18-09 Old man. Vine.

I write down the time because I make a deal with myself that I have to keep writing for at least 30 minutes. The date and subject help me find my notes, if I ever need to. An old man, a vine: As I try to put together these two unrelated images in my head, I know writing about them will stretch my brain, force me to find new connections, exercise my action verbs, even if I don’t find a story. I start writing.

The jasmine man…

I like those words together. A musical sound. I say it out loud: jasmine man… I wonder: is he half man, half vine? What does he look like? I look down at the page. Keep writing.

The vine grew up his leg, wrapped around his middle and glued its fierce tendrils into his belly button…

Glued? Don’t like that word. Doesn’t feel right. I suck the end of the pen. I think about how dew covered leaves feel against my face, like the wetness of a man’s tongue in a deep, long kiss. That is definitely more interesting than how a vine grows. I put the pen back on the paper: never cross out, just keep writing.

In spring the ladies buried their noses in his white petals, soft as cloud, and some, intoxicated, kissed his leafy lips.

Now this sentence I like better—the sss sound echoes from petals to soft to kissed and I like how leafy lips rolls off my tongue, feels kind of like kissing. I say it again leafy lips. Okay stop reading out loud. Figure out what happens. Keep writing.

As summer progressed, the roots thickened around his feet, and their endings secreted themselves into the sole of his foot, crawling up his veins and arteries, searching…

I don’t like progressed. Sounds like a science essay. Fix it later. But the rest is interesting; the vine crawling up his veins and arteries…will his vine strangle him from inside his body? Or is vine man just getting old? Don’t stop to think. Keep writing.

By July his leafy girth had grown wide, giving him an obese look, a man of wide tee shirts, baggy pants, disappearing neck, and a waddle walk…

How will the ladies feel now about kissing an old man’s tongue? Ugh. Even his papery thin cheek with its folds of winkles? My pen hovers above the page. I force it down on the paper. Keep writing.

The jasmine man, no longer in bloom, with a pot belly of tangles drooping over his thin, bony stems…his leaves wilted and browning, he yearns…

It was an especially good writing day; I finished the whole story in one sitting that morning, although there was lots of editing later, including helpful suggestions from Aggie, my writing group and the editor Whitney Steen, at Pindeldyboz. If you want you can read the finished “Jasmine Man” at

For these short-short stories my idol is the writer Lydia Davis. My favorite writing book is—not surprisingly—From Where You Dream, by Robert Olen Butler. I’m constantly grateful to my once-a-month writing group and to Aggie and the writers at Kepler’s who help me decide which of my stories are keepers.

No matter where the ideas come from, the most valuable thing I’ve learned about the first draft process is the most simple: keep writing. Anywhere, anytime, anyplace. Every writer says the same. Keep writing. Something good will happen. Just keep writing.

Happy New Year!

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Robin Black Guest Post: Shaking Up The Workshop

Many thanks to Aggie for inviting me to post! It's a real honor. First, I want to introduce myself. I'm a fiction writer and my first collection, If I Loved You, I Would Tell You This, is coming out from Random House in March. There are ten stories in the book and it took me eight years to write. I always tell people that because, early on, if anyone had told me it would take that long to finish a collection I would have thought either a) that they were crazy or b) that I must be crazy to be doing it. But it turns out that eight years isn't even a weirdly long time for a book - and I think that's important for writers to know from the start. If it's taking a lot longer than you had imagined or hoped to write even an individual story, it may be because you're doing something right.

On my mind today is the subject of the feedback writers get along the way. I think I'm focused on that because next month I'm returning to classroom teaching - undergraduates - after two years of taking private students and teaching one-on-one. This means that I have to face the dreaded workshop again. I say 'dreaded' because though I see a lot of advantages to the workshop format, I also think it has a pretty impressive capacity to do more harm than good. Here's how I see it: As a teacher, at the heart of my commitment to every student is the goal that after our work together, she will be even more excited about writing than she was before she met me. There's a lot more to teaching than that - I'm a total craft nerd - but without that increase in enthusiasm and commitment, I haven't done my job. And workshops, with their emphasis on on perfecting individual stories, their potential for competition and their drive toward consensus can all too easily have the opposite effect. So I have been thinking about ways to shake the format up - and I'm hoping that some of these thoughts will interest those of you who are in workshops now.

One big change I'm introducing is that for the first few classes we're going to workshop early drafts of stories by people who aren't there - friends of mine. I want to give my students practice critiquing and teach them skills for doing that, without risking the feelings of anyone in the room. I want the freedom to discuss a problematic piece frankly and consider strategies for the best, most helpful ways to present those concerns to the author - without the author there. The process of translating a private response to a story into a useful comment is a complex one. Knowing how to do that isn't something we're born with - but I'm hoping it's a skill that can be taught.

I also want my students to see that the main benefit of a workshop is not having your own work critiqued, but learning from reading other people's. That had better be the main benefit - if you have ten people in a workshop, each will spend 90% of their time critiquing and only 10% being critiqued. And I think that's fine, because there's a huge value to reading work in early drafts. Don't get me wrong, I also think that studying how gifted writers accomplish what they accomplish is a crucially important thing to do. But looking at significantly under-realized work can be at least as instructive. I have many bad writing habits that I never saw until I encountered them in other people's work, if only because I was too close to my own to have much perspective at all.

I mentioned that another tendency of workshops is to drift toward consensus. In my view, that's a particularly insidious danger because one of the most important lessons for any writer to learn - and for some of us it takes a long, long time - is that there will always people who don't like our work. There are people who don't like Hemingway, Woolf, Austen, Faulkner and on and and on. Having detractors is inevitable. Yet when we're in a workshop, we want the approval of the group - sometimes even more than we want advice. So, along with using my anonymous drafts to illustrate that inevitably participants respond more and less positively to particular works, I'm going to ask that each student be honest with herself each time about whether she feels connected to the author's basic intent, and if not, to consider playing a smaller role in the discussion. Years of experience have taught me that people who respond positively to a piece are almost always more helpful to an author than people who don't - which makes a certain amount of sense, though too often in workshops it's the most negative who speak loudest.

I hope some of that gives you all some food for thought. Again, thanks so much to Aggie for inviting me to visit this blog! Oh, and the picture above is just a reminder that every writer needs someone in their life who will never critique their work. . .